Call me naive, but I cannot believe that it’s January 2012, almost 39 years to the day that the right to abortion was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, and we’re still having a conversation about the access to and legality of female reproductive health services.

Of course, the conversation, at least the one put forth by antiabortion activists, has rarely, if ever, been framed in terms of women’s health, bodily autonomy and the right to privacy or self-determination. Rather, they talk about “baby-killing.” And now, thanks to the GOP presidential primary race — which, with the departures of Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain is now a collection of paternalistic middle-aged white guys — the conversation has taken a revealing turn.

Prompted by an October Rick Santorum interview with an Iowa blogger, and recent follow-up queries of Santorum and other GOP presidential contenders, these first few weeks of the year have seen the mainstreaming of a more antiquated angle of attack from social conservatives, namely, the morality of birth control. Yes, birth control. Let that one sink in.

To be clear: No one in the race for the GOP nomination has called for an explicit ban on contraception. That’s because they don’t have to. Much as is the case with abortion, the GOP field and their socially conservative supporters realize that one only need to deny funding for and otherwise chip away at existing reproductive rights laws in order to make an impact. The strategy: Defund family-planning initiatives and organizations, legislate away health insurance coverage of birth control or block FDA approval for new preventatives and you make contraception all but obsolete.

“The problem is not that Santorum or others in the GOP are going to do something that makes contraception illegal, but that they will make it an issue of access,” says Michelle Goldberg, a writer for Newsweek and the author of the 2009 book “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of The World.”

Former U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum has made no bones about his opposition to contraception and his willingness to use the presidency as a religious pulpit from which to politicize Americans’ personal lives. (Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES)

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Santorum has made no bones about his opposition to contraception and his willingness to use the presidency as a religious pulpit from which to politicize Americans’ personal lives. In addition to that October interview, in which he claimed that “contraception is not okay” and “counter to how things are supposed to be,” in response last Friday to a question about birth control by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, the former Pennsylvania senator said that having a child out of wedlock is a significant obstruction to women’s economic mobility, making his opposition to birth control even that more mind-boggling.

Rick Perry flip-flopped on the abortion issue late last year, announcing in December that he now opposes it all cases, including rape or incest. (Perry has also supported efforts to defund clinics that provide birth control.) Ron Paul’s high regard for individual civil liberties does not, apparently, extend to women who would prefer to prevent or terminate a pregnancy: Like other GOP candidates, the Texas congressman supports numerous “personhood” amendments making their way through state legislatures that would identify life as beginning at the moment of fertilization.

As for front-runner Mitt Romney, although he has not explicitly expressed a desire to ban birth control, the two-time presidential candidate has voiced his support for eliminating Title X, the federal program that helps provide reproductive health services to low-income and uninsured Americans. “This is an unusual topic that you’re raising,” Romney said after being asked about the birth control issue by moderator George Stephanopoulos at an ABC/Yahoo! News Republican debate last Saturday. He went on to say that he believes that Roe v. Wade should be overturned.

Goldberg is particularly worried about Romney, who, unlike Santorum, stands a good chance of winning the GOP nomination and maybe, the presidency. In response to attacks by GOP contender Newt Gingrich, the former Massachusetts governor has been dialing up the antiabortion rhetoric in the past few days, stressing his commitment to the “protection of life” to South Carolina voters.

“I think it’s incredibly likely that he would fill his administration with anti-choice hard-liners and would be every bit as bad as George W. Bush, if not worse,” she says. “We’ve already heard about how he acted as bishop — when he had direct authority over women, he acted in pretty callous ways. And then there’s the fact that he’s going to be beholden to the Republicans in Congress and need to prove himself to them.”

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“We are in the middle of a maelstrom,” adds Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst for the reproductive and sexual health nonprofit Guttmacher Institute. The institute announced on Jan. 6 that by the end of 2011, there had been about 600 measures introduced in the United States that threatened to negatively affect women’s reproductive rights and health. By the end of the year, 135 of those measures had been enacted, what the organization called “a record number of abortion restrictions.”

The fact that the issue of birth control is even up for debate and that its detractors and naysayers aren’t being laughed off the public stage is profoundly depressing: Birth control and, by extension, abortion have changed women’s lives. They’ve certainly changed mine. Ninety-eight percent of Americans will use some form of birth control over the course of their lives; one-third of American women will have an abortion by the age of 45. And were we in a sane society, one where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were not only celebrated but encouraged, such political or ideological posturing would be, as Goldberg puts it, “completely disqualifying” for candidates.

But maybe it’s also something to rejoice over. After all, the newly explicit GOP attack on reproductive health services underscores what many abortion-rights activists and advocates have known all along: that opposition to abortion is not always about opposition to pregnancy termination or the fantasy of saving cute, chubby babies but to the very idea that women can, and should, make decisions about their own bodies, and that sex is for more than just procreation.

“In some ways, I’m appalled and in some ways, I’m relieved,” says Jodi Jacobson, editor of the online women’s health advocacy outlet RH Reality Check. Jacobson points out that the next few weeks are likely to bring a decision by the Obama administration regarding the “conscience clause,” which would allow religious organizations to deny insurance coverage for employees’ contraceptive and reproductive health needs.

“I understand that it may sound unbelievable, but sometimes you don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone,” she continues. “I used to say it all the time: It’s not just about abortion, it’s about contraception. And people would look at me like, Get this woman a straightjacket.

“Finally, the real agenda is coming out.”